Tracing Cancer's Cause
Firefighters Exposed to PCBs While Training More Than 20
Years Ago In Anne Arundel Seek a Study of Their Illness -- and Help With Coping
Daniel de Vise
Washington Post Staff Writer
July 15, 2006; B01
Fowler spent a week in winter 1974 learning to fight fires inside a blackened
structure called the Dollhouse. Trainers filled the basement with spent
transformer oil and hay, and set them ablaze. Twenty trainees sat upstairs and
ate smoke until they were about to vomit or pass out.
was like a macho thing -- who was the last one standing," Fowler recalled.
days, Fowler feels as though he's the last one standing. Thirty friends from the
Anne Arundel County Fire Department have died of cancer. Fowler's 19-year-old
daughter, Amanda, lost the vision in her left eye to cancer as a baby. And he is
dying of lymphoma.
least 120 firefighters who graduated from the fire training academy in
Millersville between 1968 and 1985 have been diagnosed with cancer, and at least
40 have died, according to a Montgomery County legal team that is assembling a
firefighters believe they are a classic cancer cluster. A wave of premature
deaths triggered memories of oil burned and fumes inhaled at the academy in the
1970s. The trainees didn't know then that the oil contained polychlorinated
biphenyls, or PCBs, compounds later found to cause cancer.
linking cancer to its cause is notoriously difficult, particularly among
firefighters, who breathe toxins whenever they fight fires. A Johns Hopkins
University researcher spent most of a year on a limited study of the Anne
Arundel firefighters and found nothing conclusive.
firefighters, joined by the Hopkins expert and U.S. Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski (D-Md.),
seek a definitive study. More than that, though, they want help: cancer
screenings for the healthy, medical coverage for the sick, burial for the dead.
man of 20 has a 1 percent chance of contracting cancer by age 40 and a 3 percent
chance by 50. Among the 2,000 recruits who trained at the fire academy between
1968 and 1985, most of whom were in their twenties, about 5 percent have
contracted cancer, according to research by Cindy Ell, a retired firefighter who
keeps a database of victims.
time we bury somebody else, it creates a lot of anger and a lot of
emotion," said Ell, a Delaware resident who has emerged as the Erin
Brockovich of Anne Arundel firefighters. Much like the film and real-life
heroine, Ell has almost single-handedly built a case for the firefighters while
working for a lawyer sympathetic to her cause.
vary on exactly when the Anne Arundel firefighters came to regard PCBs as a
ticking oncologic time bomb. Some say it was the day in 1997 that Fowler, then
43 and a robust engine driver, received his diagnosis.
started volunteering at the firehouse at age 16 and graduated from the academy
at 21, just before Christmas 1974. He married a woman whose mother volunteered
in the fire department's ladies' auxiliary. He returned to the academy at least
four times as a trainer, each time exposing himself to tainted oil.
1989, the Fowlers noticed a change in their 18-month-old daughter: Her left eye
seemed to protrude. Doctors found a malignant tumor. Amanda survived the cancer,
called rhabdomyosarcoma, but lost some of her vision.
firefighters believe they passed a cancer risk to their children. Precisely how
200 cases of rhabdomyosarcoma are diagnosed each year in the United States in
children younger than 10. Amanda was the second child of an Anne Arundel
firefighter to contract the disease.
learned he had non-Hodgkin's lymphoma eight years later, when he arrived home
from a shift one January morning.
times since, doctors have told him he was about to die. Each time, he focused on
some future date -- a holiday, a graduation, an anniversary -- and toughed it
out. Fellow firefighters joke that he's too stubborn to die. The fact that he is
alive at 52 is one of the things they have to celebrate.
Fowler lives in a perpetual morphine haze. He can no longer drive. He used to
walk the four miles to his old fire station in Earleigh Heights and back again.
Now, he can barely make the half-mile to the neighborhood gas station.
Pumpkin," he said, scooping his 15-month-old granddaughter, Gabriella, into
his arms on the patio of the family home. "If it wasn't for her," he
said, "I think I'd be dead now."
to Tainted Oil
old Dollhouse still sits on the grounds of the training academy, set against a
sweep of forest behind fire headquarters. The academy opened in 1968.
Firefighters from Anne Arundel, Howard and Prince George's counties, Annapolis,
Fort Meade and the U.S. Naval Academy trained there, according to Ell.
in spring 1971, the academy accepted annual shipments of used transformer oil
from Baltimore Gas and Electric Co. Trainers pumped oil into the Pit, a pool of
water that would be set ablaze; the Christmas Tree, a rectangular steel
structure that spat flame; and the Dollhouse.
days, you would just be blowing that stuff out of your nose," Fowler
of PCBs ceased in 1977 after the government declared the substance a carcinogen.
Two years later, state officials detected PCBs in a tributary to the Severn
River and traced them to the academy, which is near a creek bed.
Farrell, a state health official at the time, made inquiries and learned
recruits "were very heavily exposed" to the tainted oil, "kind of
wading around in it, breathing it, with and without respirators." She asked
the county to warn its fire department.
firefighters knew about PCBs and had asked the utility as early as 1976 whether
the donated oil contained them. According to an internal department memo, BGE
officials repeatedly told them the oil did not. One fire official cited in the
memo said a BGE official in 1977 told him, "That stuff won't hurt you
anyway, my guys wash their hands in it."
the end of 1980, BGE had stopped delivering transformer oil to the academy and
the fire department had stopped burning it. But firefighters contend the site
wasn't thoroughly cleaned until five years later.
Foy, a spokeswoman for the utility, noted that BGE employees trained at the fire
academy. "We would never knowingly put people at risk," she said.
Ell had been researching cancer for the firefighters union when, in August 1996,
she blew out two discs in her neck. While laid up, she took to researching full
time. In summer 2002, she went to work for Kenneth Berman, a Montgomery lawyer
who was preparing workers' compensation cases for widows of Anne Arundel
2004, they saw a potential case against those they deemed responsible: Monsanto
Co., which manufactured the PCBs; General Electric Co., which sold them; and BGE,
which provided them to the fire department. Suing the county is forbidden under
state law unless the firefighters can prove intentional wrongdoing.
June 2004, someone tipped off a reporter to what Berman and Ell were doing. In
the resulting crush of publicity, the county hired Jonathan Samet, a Johns
Hopkins University epidemiologist, to look for a link between cancer and PCBs.
concluded that the firefighters faced an elevated risk for cancer, but he found
nothing to link their illness to PCBs or any other specific cause.
Samet, working with limited funds, found and interviewed
17 firefighters. Berman and Ell had offered the researcher the identities of
many more cancer victims, living and dead. Samet contends he followed proper
procedure for conducting impartial research.
very difficult to pinpoint that a specific cancer was caused in a specific
firefighter by a particular environmental exposure," Samet recalled.
recommended further study. Mikulski requested a national investigation of cancer
in firefighters. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention responded this
spring that it was aware of the Anne Arundel study and "prioritizing
has won 17 workers' compensation cases. Each ruling amounts to a concession by
the state that the firefighter's job made him sick. There is no need to prove
how the firefighter got sick.
victory entitles firefighters and their families to recover medical expenses,
two-thirds of lost wages while the firefighter is alive and the cost of a
Techniques for Preventing Disease
July 24, 2006; Page A18
Regarding "Tracing Cancer's
Cause," the July 15 Metro story about firefighters in Anne Arundel County:
The firefighters are asking the right question -- what is the link
between cancer and exposure to toxic chemicals?
The National Cancer Institute says the incidence of non-Hodgkin's
lymphoma has nearly doubled since the early 1970s. While the causes of cancer
are complex, many scientists believe the increased exposure to chemicals in our
environment is an important factor.
It's more than just firefighters at risk daily. Chemicals linked to
cancer are found in schools, on lawns, in auto repair shops and in drinking
People can take steps to protect themselves. The Lymphoma Foundation of
America has published two research reports on the relationship between chemical
exposure and cancer: "Do Pesticides Cause Lymphoma?" and
"Solvents and Lymphoma." They can be found at http://www.lymphomahelp.org/
Its unfortunate that it takes the bitter experience of firefighters and
their families to focus attention on a widespread public health problem.
Lymphoma Foundation of America